Art review: Juan Santiago at the Gambrel Gallery

To enter the white space of the Gambrel Gallery is to leave the mountains of southern Oregon and instead become a beholder of royalty. The princesses of No mirrors in this house to inhabit a sacred elevation. Viewers are left to watch without agency from below. In another area, ignoring intrusions, the porcelain figures are immune to pleas for outside engagement. They do not belong to the vast mountains and golden grass of a winter afternoon in the valley, but rather to the morning mist that obscures and isolates and transforms us into internal dialogues.

Installation view of No mirrors in this house (2022). Image courtesy of Galerie Gambrel.

On the eastern walls, pairs of figures commune in private. Mirrors that might reflect real-world concerns are disavowed and turned to face the wall. These princesses are covered in drips and gobs, perhaps wearing their inner restlessness on their dresses? The duality of a surface that both obscures and symbolizes evokes a painting by Sam Gilliam, Butterflies-Butterflies (2021), currently on loan to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum in Eugene. In both works, the energy of the marbled surface suggests that the reserved calm is only external – and that beneath the flowing dresses or the calm colors, all is not so serene.

Artist Juan Miguel Santiago sees both stoicism and contentment as the face of his porcelain figurines. As the current artist-in-residence at Gambrel Gallery, he is often available to walk through the exhibition with visitors. These conversations initiate the “enriching dialogue” that the Gambrel Gallery, founded in June 2021, seeks to build. Santiago and Gambrel director Emily Santiago ran an underground art gallery in Oakland CA from 2001 to 2003. Emily Santiago remembers their Oakland gallery Salbabida (“lifeline” in Tagalong) as a joyful experience that inspired her to create Gambrel Gallery in Ashland as a space of resilience in difficult times. The gallery intends to have 5-6 exhibitions per year in addition to artist residencies and music events.

Installation view of No mirrors in this house (2022). Image courtesy of Galerie Gambrel.

The quiet and secluded Gambrel space gives viewers the opportunity to decompress and find calm, reflecting the intent of the princess herself. Santiago found the mold for the Asian at a New Jersey warehouse sale — the romantic start to a relationship he’s cast over 200 of the characters into. Using the same mold for the two works exhibited at the Gambrel Gallery (a total of 71 figures), Santiago presents a three-dimensional time-lapse of a solo walk. Or perhaps it is the manifestation of the multiple positions of an inner dialogue.

In porcelain meditation (2013), Santiago has subtly changed the placement of the head on the lower body, causing the princess to mimic the natural head movements the artist has seen herself making during contemplative walks. Across the expanse of 65 figures, the figure opens and closes its eyes, acknowledging and perhaps denying the viewer’s intrusion while reinforcing the narrative and slow passage of time inherent in the work.

Juan Santiago, porcelain meditation (2013). Image courtesy of Galerie Gambrel.

The vicissitudes of time are evident in the details of the princesses’ draped garments: the patterns on the fabric melt away as the mold naturally degrades with each figure made. Santiago highlights the materiality of the princess in her refusal to dull the seams, which grow larger as the mold is used to completion. The figure becomes less ethereal, more tangible, more present.

The raw wood of a fallen Chinquapin oak, milled by Yorgen Kvinsland in Mendocino, supports the princesses in their pensive walk and silent interactions. Gazing slightly upwards at the 18-inch figures places the viewer in a distant adoring position – again the gallery seems to contain another world within. During our conversation, Santiago (gently) touched one of the princesses and a boundary between realities seemed to be crossed. Likewise, seeing the imperfections and Santiago’s choice not to use strictly sequential works in the procession breaks the boundary between ours and this floating world. The blurred outlines are the most memorable part of the work: imagining the figure forever reflecting in the white cube isn’t as relevant as thinking about its decline, awakening, or perhaps flight.

Exterior view of the Gambrel gallery.

Named after the barn roof style, Gambrel Gallery draws the fine line between studio and living room, adding the red barn facade as a unique southern Oregon touch. Installed in the neutral interior space of the gallery, the gallery of Juan Santiago No mirrors in this house Successfully claims a liminal space between earth and sky, which leaves the viewer wondering where the characters will eventually arrive.

“No mirrors in this house” can be viewed at Gambrel Gallery through March 5, 2022. The gallery is located at 1980 E Main St., Ashland and is open by appointment Thursday through Saturday 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Georgina Ruff is a historian of modern and contemporary art and technology. Her interests in curating outdated media and immersive installations have led her to explore 1960s light shows, Bauhaus illuminations, the history of fluorescent light bulbs, and the contemporary spatial politics of objectless artwork.

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